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Invisible Children 404: Russia's LGBT Youth Are Making a Stand

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We all get a bit upset when we see the "404" or "Not Found" error message, which is a standard web code indicating you can't find what you're requesting. Bummer!

Now imagine what life is like for the participants of Children 404, a sure-hit documentary to come out later in 2014, based on the stories from the Children-404 social networking project, which offered Russian (and international) youth a channel to express themselves and seek or offer support.

Visibility is vital.

In November 2013, I spent some time with Oleg Klyuenkov and Lyudmila Romodina from the Arkhangelsk-based LGBT organization Rakurs on a visit to Portland, Maine. Arkhangelsk has a vibrant sister city relationship with Portland, dating back to the World War II days when the Russian port received convoys of lend-lease goods from the U.S.

We wanted to celebrate the official partnership, which marked its 25th anniversary, but also use the opportunity to learn about Portland's struggles and to discuss Arkhangelsk's challenges. Arkhangelsk was the second region in Russia to adopt a regional ban on "propaganda" of homosexuality, though it also became the first region to repeal its local ban after Russia adopted the federal law. So we had a lot to talk about, and we did.

But we also went places, thanks to Portland's hospitality and the ingenuity of our selfless host, local artist Robert Lieber. One day, we browsed through the University of Southern Maine's LGBT Collection, where we saw two leaflets about the AIDS crisis in the Soviet Union, produced in 1990 by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Queer Nation. One of the flyers says:

"FACT: The Soviet Government claims there are 44 people with AIDS and 500 with HIV IN ALL OF THE SOVIET UNION!!" [authors' emphasis]

The second leaflet from the archives is a letter to USSR's then-President Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush, calling on both governments "to immediately take necessary measures for the reworking of legislation in the direction of humanitarianism and freedom."

The letter says that LGBT Soviets are "forced to live underground as a result of the heterosexist government sexual politics and society's homophobia." Some of these themes have re-emerged during the international and domestic debates over Russia's recently enacted law banning the "propaganda" of nontraditional sexual relations to minors, which Vladimir Putin continues to defend, noting that "a ban on something and a ban on promoting that thing" are totally different things.

At the time these leaflets were produced, the Soviet Union's criminalization of same-sex relations for men (official penalty: up to 5 years in prison) hadn't been applied for half a decade. ACT UP's main point was that failure to recognize the specific needs of your own citizens translates into harmful, even disastrous government policies.

Today, UN AIDS says the number of people living with HIV in Russia (990K) is larger than in the higher-populated Brazil, China, or Indonesia. The annual number of new infections has decreased dramatically in recent years even though Russia's "AIDS investment strategy is not optimized to its epidemic patterns." Translation: the government doesn't understand how to spend money to effectively serve the affected population whose needs remain invisible because there is very little public discourse on AIDS and HIV-prevention in Russia.

The leaflets about the situation in the Soviet Union were a tear drop compared to the ocean of ACT UP's activism "at home" in the 1980s and 90s. If you're in New York, you can go visit the place where Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw got married (or was planning to get married? -- I dunno) to see the exhibit "Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism," at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library.

The posters, graphics, flyers, and street actions coordinated by ACT UP repeated the core message of the two Soviet flyers we saw at the University of Southern Maine: the government's not doing enough, it's misinformed, misguided, unwilling to accept the reality or expertise of the people who know how to confront an AIDS epidemic.

The Wizard of Oz-inspired art by ACT UP is particularly telling:
"I'd fight AIDS if I only had a heart" -- Rudy Giuliani, teach safe sex in schools.
"I'd fight AIDS if I only had a brain" -- George Pataki, Medicaid cuts kill.
"I'd fight AIDS if I only had the courage" -- Bill Clinton, support AIDS cure project.
"I'll get you my pretty & your T-cells too!" -- this one is from a wicked witch played by Newt Gingrich.

Check out the entire digital collection if you're visiting your aunt in Dubuque and can't see the exhibit, which closes on April 6 in New York.

It's precisely what Vladimir Putin needs: a heart to go back to his old self (his government shut down federal anti-"propaganda" bills in 2003, 2004, and 2006), a brain to implement policies informed by the most advanced, tech-savvy specialists of the day, and the courage to meet with LGBT activists and listen to their concerns.